Overview of Biomass Pyrolysis

Biomass pyrolysis is the thermal decomposition of biomass occurring in the absence of oxygen. It is the fundamental chemical reaction that is the precursor of both the combustion and gasification processes and occurs naturally in the first two seconds. The products of biomass pyrolysis include biochar, bio-oil and gases including methane, hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide.

The pyrolysis process consists of both simultaneous and successive reactions when organic material is heated in a non-reactive atmosphere. Thermal decomposition of organic components in biomass starts at 350 °C–550 °C and goes up to 700 °C–800 °C in the absence of air/oxygen. The long chains of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen compounds in biomass break down into smaller molecules in the form of gases, condensable vapours (tars and oils) and solid charcoal under pyrolysis conditions. Rate and extent of decomposition of each of these components depends on the process parameters of the reactor temperature, biomass heating rate, pressure, reactor configuration, feedstock etc

Depending on the thermal environment and the final temperature, pyrolysis will yield mainly biochar at low temperatures, less than 450 0C, when the heating rate is quite slow, and mainly gases at high temperatures, greater than 800 0C, with rapid heating rates. At an intermediate temperature and under relatively high heating rates, the main product is bio-oil.

Slow and Fast Pyrolysis

Pyrolysis processes can be categorized as slow or fast. Slow pyrolysis takes several hours to complete and results in biochar as the main product. On the other hand, fast pyrolysis yields 60% bio-oil and takes seconds for complete pyrolysis. In addition, it gives 20% biochar and 20% syngas.  Fast pyrolysis is currently the most widely used pyrolysis system.

The essential features of a fast pyrolysis process are:

  • Very high heating and heat transfer rates, which require a finely ground feed.
  • Carefully controlled reaction temperature of around 500oC in the vapour phase
  •  Residence time of pyrolysis vapours in the reactor less than 1 sec
  • Quenching (rapid cooling) of the pyrolysis vapours to give the bio-oil product.

Advantages of Biomass Pyrolysis

Pyrolysis can be performed at relatively small scale and at remote locations which enhance energy density of the biomass resource and reduce transport and handling costs.  Heat transfer is a critical area in pyrolysis as the pyrolysis process is endothermic and sufficient heat transfer surface has to be provided to meet process heat needs. Biomass pyrolysis offers a flexible and attractive way of converting organic matter into energy products which can be successfully used for the production of heat, power and chemicals.

A wide range of biomass feedstocks can be used in pyrolysis processes. The pyrolysis process is very dependent on the moisture content of the feedstock, which should be around 10%. At higher moisture contents, high levels of water are produced and at lower levels there is a risk that the process only produces dust instead of oil. High-moisture waste streams, such as sludge and meat processing wastes, require drying before subjecting to pyrolysis.

Furthermore, the bio-char produced can be used on the farm as an excellent soil amender as it is highly absorbent and therefore increases the soil’s ability to retain water, nutrients and agricultural chemicals, preventing water contamination and soil erosion. Soil application of bio-char may enhance both soil quality and be an effective means of sequestering large amounts of carbon, thereby helping to mitigate global climate change through carbon sequestration.  Use of bio-char as a soil amendment will offset many of the problems associated with removing crop residues from the land.

Biomass pyrolysis has been garnering much attention due to its high efficiency and good environmental performance characteristics. It also provides an opportunity for the processing of agricultural residues, wood wastes and municipal solid waste into clean energy. In addition, biochar sequestration could make a big difference in the fossil fuel emissions worldwide and act as a major player in the global carbon market with its robust, clean and simple production technology.

Issues Confronting Biomass Energy Ventures

Biomass resources can be transformed into clean energy and/or fuels by thermal and biochemical technologies. Besides recovery of substantial energy, these technologies can lead to a substantial reduction in the overall waste quantities requiring final disposal. However, biomass energy projects worldwide are often hampered by a variety of techno-commercial issues. The issues enumerated below are not geography-specific and are usually a matter of concern for project developers, entrepreneurs and technology companies:

  1. Large Project Costs: In India, a 1 MW gasification plant usually costs about USD 1-1.5 million. A combustion-based 1 MW plant would need a little more expenditure, to the tune of USD 1-2 million. An anaerobic digestion-based plant of the same capacity, on the other hand, could range anywhere upwards USD 3 million. Such high capital costs prove to be a big hurdle for any entrepreneur or cleantech enthusiast to come forward and invest into these technologies.
  2. Low Conversion Efficiencies: In general, efficiencies of combustion-based systems are in the range of 20-25% and gasification-based systems are considered even poorer, with their efficiencies being in the range of a measly 10-15%. The biomass resources themselves are low in energy density, and such poor system efficiencies could add a double blow to the entire project.
  3. Dearth of Mature Technologies: Poor efficiencies call for a larger quantum of resources needed to generate a unit amount of energy. Owing to this reason, investors and project developers find it hard to go for such plants on a larger scale. Moreover, the availability of only a few reliable technology and operation & maintenance service providers makes these technologies further undesirable. Gasification technology is still limited to scales lesser than 1 MW in most parts of the world. Combustion-based systems have although gone upwards of 1 MW, a lot many are now facing hurdles because of factors like unreliable resource chain, grid availability, and many others.
  4. Lack of Funding Options: Financing agencies usually give a tough time to biomass project developers as compared to what it takes to invest in other renewable energy technologies.
  5. Non-Transparent Trade Markets: Usually, the biomass energy resources are obtained through forests, farms, industries, animal farms etc. There is no standard pricing mechanism for such resources and these usually vary from vendor to vendor, even with the same resource in consideration.
  6. High Risks / Low Pay-Backs: Biomass energy projects are not much sought-after owing to high project risks which could entail from failed crops, natural disasters, local disturbances, etc.
  7. Resource Price Escalation: Unrealistic fuel price escalation too is a major cause of worry for the plant owners. Usually, an escalation of 3-5% is considered while carrying out the project’s financial modelling. However, it has been observed that in some cases, the rise has been as staggering as 15-20% per annum, forcing the plants to shut down.

Biomass Pyrolysis Process

Pyrolysis is the thermal decomposition of biomass occurring in the absence of oxygen. It is the fundamental chemical reaction that is the precursor of both the combustion and gasification processes and occurs naturally in the first two seconds. The products of biomass pyrolysis include biochar, bio-oil and gases including methane, hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide.

Depending on the thermal environment and the final temperature, pyrolysis will yield mainly biochar at low temperatures, less than 450 0C, when the heating rate is quite slow, and mainly gases at high temperatures, greater than 800 0C, with rapid heating rates. At an intermediate temperature and under relatively high heating rates, the main product is bio-oil.

Pyrolysis can be performed at relatively small scale and at remote locations which enhance energy density of the biomass resource and reduce transport and handling costs.  Pyrolysis offers a flexible and attractive way of converting solid biomass into an easily stored and transported liquid, which can be successfully used for the production of heat, power and chemicals.

A wide range of biomass feedstocks can be used in pyrolysis processes. The pyrolysis process is very dependent on the moisture content of the feedstock, which should be around 10%. At higher moisture contents, high levels of water are produced and at lower levels there is a risk that the process only produces dust instead of oil. High-moisture waste streams, such as sludge and meat processing wastes, require drying before subjecting to pyrolysis.

The efficiency and nature of the pyrolysis process is dependent on the particle size of feedstocks. Most of the pyrolysis technologies can only process small particles to a maximum of 2 mm keeping in view the need for rapid heat transfer through the particle. The demand for small particle size means that the feedstock has to be size-reduced before being used for pyrolysis.

Pyrolysis processes can be categorized as slow pyrolysis or fast pyrolysis. Fast pyrolysis is currently the most widely used pyrolysis system. Slow pyrolysis takes several hours to complete and results in biochar as the main product. On the other hand, fast pyrolysis yields 60% bio-oil and takes seconds for complete pyrolysis. In addition, it gives 20% biochar and 20% syngas.

Bio-oil

Bio-oil is a dark brown liquid and has a similar composition to biomass. It has a much higher density than woody materials which reduces storage and transport costs. Bio-oil is not suitable for direct use in standard internal combustion engines. Alternatively, the oil can be upgraded to either a special engine fuel or through gasification processes to a syngas and then bio-diesel. Bio-oil is particularly attractive for co-firing because it can be more readily handled and burned than solid fuel and is cheaper to transport and store.

Bio-oil can offer major advantages over solid biomass and gasification due to the ease of handling, storage and combustion in an existing power station when special start-up procedures are not necessary. In addition, bio-oil is also a vital source for a wide range of organic compounds and speciality chemicals.